Singing in the rain? Baffert eyes history, wet Derby on tap

Leave a comment

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Bob Baffert times three. In a Kentucky Derby lacking a dominant favorite, the two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer saddles the top three choices.

On what could be a wet day at Churchill Downs, Game Winner is the pre-race favorite, albeit a tepid one at 9-2. Improbable and Roadster were installed as the co-second choices at 5-1.

“Last year we came in here with Justify and we knew it was my race to lose,” Baffert said.

The 19-horse field for the 145th Derby on Saturday reflects the prep season leading to the opening leg of the Triple Crown: no one horse commanded the attention.

“There are a lot of good horses in here,” Baffert said. “They’re a pretty evenly matched group.”

The picture got scrambled again when initial favorite Omaha Beach was scratched because of a breathing problem, dealing a devastating blow to 68-year-old trainer Richard Mandella, whose Hall of Fame resume lacks only a Derby victory.

That prompted the early odds to be redone. The race also lost 30-1 shot Haikal after the colt was scratched with an infected left front foot.

“This is a crazy game and anything can happen,” said Bret Calhoun, who trains By My Standards. “We just have to hold our breaths until we get there.”

War of Will benefited slightly from Haikal’s scratch. He won’t have to start in the No. 1 post, which will be left vacant. The field will break from posts 2 through 20.

A win by any of Baffert’s trio would tie him with Ben Jones for the most Derby victories with six. He would become the first trainer to win the race in consecutive years twice. His last back-to-back winners were in 1997 and `98.

Baffert won last year’s Derby – the rainiest on record – with Justify. Saturday’s forecast calls for a 90 percent chance of rain and a high of 66 degrees (18 Celsius).

It sure looks like anybody’s soggy race this time.

“It’s whoever gets the trip,” Baffert said of the 1 \-mile journey. “Especially now that it’s going to rain, we don’t know what is going to happen. It’s too bad the weather is not going to work with us.”

Game Winner finished second to Roadster in the Santa Anita Derby. Roadster’s only loss in four career starts was to Game Winner. Improbable went 3-0 last year, including a win on the Churchill Downs dirt, and finished second in this year’s Arkansas Derby.

A victory by any of the four California-based horses would surely boost the struggling industry in the state, where a spate of 23 horse deaths over three months at Santa Anita triggered a raft of medication and safety rules changes that are affecting the rest of the sport.

Every horse in the Derby, except Japan-bred Master Fencer, will run on Lasix, the anti-bleeding medication allowed on race day in the U.S. Churchill Downs and the other Triple Crown tracks announced recently the drug will be banned starting in 2021.

Game Winner’s breeding suggests a sloppy track would appeal to him, although he’s never raced on one. Neither has Code of Honor, Roadster, Tax and Vekoma.

Horses that are 1-for-1 on off-tracks are: Master Fencer, Maximum Security, Spinoff, Tacitus and War of Will.

Those with one or two losses on such tracks are: Bodexpress, By My Standards, Country House, Cutting Humor, Gray Magician, Improbable, Long Range Toddy, Plus Que Parfait and Win Win Win.

Baffert touted undefeated Florida Derby winner Maximum Security as the horse that should be the favorite.

“He’s a horse that nobody is talking about and that’s a horse that I’m worried about,” he said. “He’s run faster than we have.”

Gary and Mary West have two shots to win their first Derby since they own both Game Winner and Maximum Security.

The other trainers besides Baffert with multiple starters are Bill Mott and Todd Pletcher.

Mott, the second winningest trainer all-time at Churchill Downs, saddles Tacitus and Country House in pursuit of his first Derby win in a Hall of Fame career.

Pletcher has gone under the radar with a couple of 30-1 shots: Cutting Humor and Spinoff.

Master Fencer is one of two 50-1 shots and the first Japan-bred horse to run in the Derby. He’s never run in a Grade 1 race and got in when three other horses ahead of him on the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard weren’t nominated to the Triple Crown.

Keep an eye on Cutting Humor, if for no other reason than the 30-1 shot’s new rider is Mike Smith. The Hall of Famer picked up the mount Friday after his original Derby horse, Omaha Beach, was scratched. Smith won his first Derby aboard 50-1 shot Giacomo in 2005. He and Justify began their Triple Crown sweep last year with a win in the Derby.

Post time is 6:50 p.m. EDT.

Santa Anita season ends after 30 horse deaths, trainer ban

Getty Images
2 Comments

ARCADIA, Calif. — Santa Anita’s troubled racing season has come to a close after the deaths of 30 horses at the Southern California track rattled the industry and led to Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer being banned when four of his horses were among the casualties.

There were no incidents during morning training hours or in the 10 races Sunday.

About 20 protesters briefly toted signs outside an entrance to the track, calling attention to the deaths and condemning the sport.

Hollendorfer had two horses entered to run closing day, but they, along with two others Saturday, were scratched by track stewards on the recommendation of a special panel convened to review horses’ medical, training and racing history.

The 73-year-old trainer was ordered by The Stronach Group to remove his horses from Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields in Northern California, which are owned by the company. The fourth death in his stable during the meet occurred Saturday.

Track ownership said Hollendorfer was “no longer welcome to stable, race, or train his horses at any of our facilities.”

No one from The Stronach Group spoke to the media Sunday despite a request. The company said a statement would be forthcoming in a few days.

Racing next moves to Los Alamitos in Orange County beginning June 29, where the California Horse Racing Board said a panel will review horses entered to run there.

That track will “gladly” provide stalls to Hollendorfer, whom track owner Edward Allred called “an unexcelled horseman.”

“Unless forbidden by the California Horse Racing Board, we intend to permit entries from Hollendorfer,” Allred said in a statement. “We do not feel he should be a scapegoat for a problem which derives from a number of factors.”

Still unknown is whether Hollendorfer would be allowed to train at Del Mar near San Diego, which opens its summer meet July 17. A track spokesman said Sunday a decision had yet to be made. Neither Los Alamitos nor Del Mar is owned by The Stronach Group.

Racing at Santa Anita is set to resume Sept. 27. The track is scheduled to host the Breeders’ Cup world championships on Nov. 1-2.

The Breeders’ Cup board of directors is expected to meet this week to discuss this year’s location.

The fatalities at Santa Anita since Dec. 26 have raised alarm within California and the rest of the racing industry. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently stepped in to direct the formation of the special panel to evaluate horses’ histories before they race. Track and racing board officials implemented several changes involving exams of horses scheduled to train or race.

The racing board also is looking at changes involving jockeys’ use of a riding crop in a race.

Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux was fined $100 by the stewards for violating a CHRB rule that prohibits use of a crop more than three times in succession without giving the horse a chance to respond. The violation occurred in the eighth race Saturday.

Bob Baffert, the two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer, recently traveled to Sacramento to meet legislators concerned about the horse deaths. The majority occurred during the winter months when usually arid Santa Anita was hit with record rainfall totaling nearly a foot.

Trainers like Doug O’Neill, a two-time Kentucky Derby winner, are dismayed that the sport is under fire amid a drumbeat of negativity.

“The important thing is that they are accidents and accidents happen,” O’Neill said. “I can you tell in the 32 years I’ve been back here I’ve never seen one case of an abuse.”

About 500 backstretch workers rallied on Thursday to ask for help in protecting their jobs, emphasize their commitment to the horses in their care and their support of the recent rules changes.

O’Neill and Baffert support the workers, many of whom come from Mexico and Guatemala.

“Right now I’m worried about keeping these horses and keeping people here,” Baffert said. “If it went away, I worry about all these unemployed people.”

O’Neill noted there are good things done by the racing industry but “it’s just unfortunate that very little of that is talked about.”

He lamented what he perceives as a lack of transparency by Santa Anita management about what’s happening.

“You’d like to hear more dialogue between all the different factions that are involved,” O’Neill said. “It seems like there’s these small little groups that have all the power. They have their private meetings and none of it gets trickled down to us what the heck is going on.”

The Stronach Group has moved to reduce the use of anti-bleeding medication Lasix on race days. Going further, there’s been a proposal to eliminate Lasix in 2-year-old horses starting next year.

“Racing needs Santa Anita to work,” Baffert said. “Santa Anita is so important. If something happens here, it affects everything.”

Hall of Fame trainer banned at Santa Anita after horse death

AP Photo
1 Comment

ARCADIA, Calif. — Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer was banned by the ownership of Santa Anita on Saturday after a fourth horse from his stable died – and the 30th overall – at the Southern California track.

The Stronach Group, which owns the track, said in a statement that effective immediately Hollendorfer “is no longer welcome to stable, race or train his horses at any of our facilities.”

On the recommendation of a special panel convened to review horses’ medical, training and racing history, the track’s stewards scratched four horses trained by Hollendorfer that were entered to run Saturday and Sunday.

A 4-year-old gelding trained by Hollendorfer was injured Saturday while exercising on the training track and was euthanized. It was the first death of the meet on the training track, which isn’t used for racing.

It was the 30th death since the racing season began Dec. 26. The track closes for the season Sunday.

The high number fatalities have led officials at Santa Anita and the California Horse Racing Board to initiate several measures to address horse and rider safety. The spate of deaths has drawn national political attention, including from Gov. Gavin Newsom and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, who has called for racing to stop while training and racing conditions are inspected.

Hollendorfer couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

However, he told the Daily Racing Form, “I’m training over 100 horses right now. Santa Anita didn’t want me stay on the grounds. My opinion was that was a premature thing to do. I thought it was extreme. Now I have to step away for a while.”

The special panel rejected 38 horses that were set to run over the final six days of racing, according to the California Horse Racing Board. The panel was created last week at the direction of Newsom.

Hollendorfer has 7,617 winners from 33,519 starters and purse earnings of $199,737,768 in his career, according to Equibase.com.

He has three wins in the Breeders’ Cup and none in the Triple Crown races. His best finish with seven Kentucky Derby starters was third in 2017 with Battle of Midway. That colt sustained a fatal injury during a workout at Santa Anita on Feb. 23.

Hollendorfer’s first horse to die at the meet was a 4-year-old gelding on Dec. 30 after a race on the dirt.

It wasn’t immediately known whether Hollendorfer will be allowed to race at Los Alamitos in Orange County when that meet opens June 29. A spokesman for Del Mar said the track was aware of Hollendorfer’s ban and was gathering information. Del Mar near San Diego opens July 17. Neither track is owned by The Stronach Group.

The racing board says a panel also will review horses entered to run at Los Alamitos.

A 9-year-old gelding named Kochees trained by Hollendorfer was euthanized on May 26 after injuring his left front leg in a race a day earlier.

At the time, a spokesman for The Stronach Group told The Associated Press that it was looking into whether new protocols were followed leading up to the gelding being euthanized.

The Stronach Group said in a statement Saturday it regrets that Hollendorfer’s record in recent months at both Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields in Northern California “has become increasingly challenging and does not match the level of safety and accountability we demand.” Both tracks are owned by The Stronach Group; Golden Gate doesn’t resume racing until Aug. 15.

The track owner said individuals who don’t embrace the new rules and safety measures that put horse and rider safety above all else will have no place at any Stronach Group racetrack.

Mike Marten, spokesman for the California Horse Racing Board, said Hollendorfer’s gelding American Currency injured Saturday wasn’t entered to run in any race and thus wasn’t subject to review by the special panel.

Kochees’ injury appeared to be correctable through surgery. However, when doctors realized the horse had lost blood flow to the leg, he was euthanized.

Among the rules put in place since March, a trainer’s veterinarian must sign off on a horse’s fitness before the track’s veterinarian also takes a look at the animal ahead of it training or racing.

“In my mind there is absolutely no doubt that we’ve done every single thing properly with Kochees and all the rest of our horses, too,” Hollendorfer said in response to questioning by The AP on May 27. “We certainly are pretty sad when they get hurt.”

The 73-year-old trainer is best known for overseeing Eclipse Award winners Blind Luck, Shared Belief and Songbird. Based in Northern California for most of his career, Hollendorfer frequently ships his horses to Southern California’s tracks to run.

He’s known for buying young horses at auction in the low to mid-price range, often with his own money. He then puts together ownership groups and retains a percentage of the horse while training it as well.